The state of duathlon – feature

We analyse the past and present of duathlon in the UK… and see what the future holds for triathlon’s multisport sibling

The state of duathlon – feature

The full moon has just departed stage right, the rain has temporarily halted and 414 people in leggings and Lycra are singing the Happy Birthday song to something called the Ballbuster.

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To the uninitiated, what’s happening at the top of Box Hill on 8 November 2014 is probably quite a strange sight. For the multisport community, the pre-race calm offers a chance to celebrate the 25th edition of the Winter Ballbuster, the longest-running, most arduous duathlon on the UK multisport calendar.

Flitting around the Ballbuster venue pre-race and it becomes clear that here’s an event that oozes multisport history. Jasmine Flatters, who was volunteering for Human Race way back in 1990, is still here, manning the door to the registration office; Human Race founder John Lunt is chatting to duathletes; and the fourth-place finisher in that first 1990 Ballbuster race, Mark Kleanthous, is again on the start line.

Fun, games and gore

At 8:10am, the gun goes and the athletes prepare to have their balls busted (and whatever the female equivalent is) over the 12.8km run/38km bike/12.8km run around and up the cycling mecca of Surrey’s Box Hill. After 43 minutes, men’s leader Andy Greenleaf has ticked off the first lap of Box Hill and arrived back in the sodden transition area, with women’s leader Lucie Custance following five minutes later. 

By the first of the three bike laps, the rain has turned as relentless as the course itself. Gallows humour is now the mood of choice for competitors bringing up the rear, with ‘Whose idea was this?’ the most common refrain.

“That’s what entrants to the Ballbuster prepare themselves for,” says author and adventurer Danny Bent, a former top-five finisher at the Ballbuster. “Pain and lots of pain. There’s no pulling out. The crowds gather for the fun and games and gore and eat the homemade cakes sold from the small café… torturing the injured and energy-depleted further. The final run leg is pure survival. To finish the race entitles you to hold your head high. To win it puts you among legends.”

Achieving legendary status this year are Greenleaf and Custance, in 2:37hrs and 3:03hrs respectively, with 376 other finishers following in their wake (and 220 trundling home 50th out of 51 in the M30–34 age group) to claim the famous Ballbuster race hoodie.

Ballbuster hoodie

It’s a sell-out field here today and elsewhere the UK’s duathlon season is beginning in earnest. But with just one, not two, Ballbusters planned for 2015, what is the state of the run/bike/run scene? Has triathlon’s stratospheric rise made duathlon nothing more than a winter stop-gap for the tri season? And what does the future hold for the sport that once shared equal billing with its three-discipline sibling? We speak to the race organisers, athletes and federations to find out… but first we head back to 1984 to discover the roots of what was once known as biathlon. 

Details on duathlon’s earliest years are sketchy, with no fabled meeting taking place in San Diego à la the formative tale of modern triathlon. In his book, Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals, American multisport veteran Steve Jonas cites Daniel Honig, president of the New York Triathlon Club, as “one of the principal early developers, if not the original inventor of the format”. In 1984, Honig started to add run/bike/run events to his Big Apple schedule of races, with the format variously consisting of run/bike, run/bike/run or bike/run formats, and going under the names of byathlon, run-bike-run, cyruthon (cycle-run) and biathlon.

What started as something to extend the triathlon race season, “quickly came to be seen on its own merits, first as an entry into triathlon racing for weak or non-swimmers, and then as a multisport form that stood on its own,” writes Jonas. The sport swiftly gained in popularity stateside, drawing major sponsors for events like the Coors Lite Biathlon Series by the end of the decade and producing duathlon superstars like America’s Kenny Souza, the flowing-haired, Speedo-wearing Californian who wouldn’t look out of place in a Motley Crue video.

Kenny Souza racing at Powerman England

Over in the UK, the first run/bike/run event is thought to have been held along the A3 dual carriageway on 25 January 1987. The Classic Biathlon consisted of a 4km run/16km bike/4km run close to Chessington, with Mark Kleanthous, a man with 460 multisport events under his belt, naturally on the start line. The inaugural National Biathlon Series would be created by 220 magazine in 1990 (“to create some events that we could report on during the off-season,” says 220 founder John Lillie), before John Lunt and the team at Human Race launched the Winter Ballbuster in December of that year. 

“The race would draw nearly 200 competitors,” recalls Kleanthous, “with entry consisting of athletes sending off two self-addressed envelopes for the race info and results, which were typed out and sent 10 days later. That race started at the bottom of Box Hill, with ‘Let’s bust our balls!’ shouted at the start.” The Ballbuster would become a fixture on the UK race calendar for the next 25 race seasons and beyond. It was a year earlier, however, that the sport would be changed forever, with the creation of a run/bike/run event in the small Swiss town of Zofingen (pop. 11,000).

The golden age 

Powerman Zofingen is duathlon’s equivalent of the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii; the mythologised home of a sport where quads burn, lungs bust and legends are born. While the days of sitting in the ‘Big Three’ of multisport events alongside Hawaii and the Nice Triathlon are now a distant memory, the cast list of Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser, Olivier Bernhard, the Vansteelant brothers, Karin Thürig and Erika Csomor highlights the fundamental role Zofingen has played in duathlon history.

Zofingen’s journey began on 4 June 1989 with the initial format witnessing an opening 5km run followed by a 120km bike and a 30km run. The first winners were Hermine Haas of Switzerland and Andreas Rudolph of Germany, with a young Swiss mum and future six-time Ironman World Champion Natascha Badmann taking sixth place in her debut multisport event. From 1990 to 1996, the distances would be 7.5km/150km/ 30km and, like the Nice Triathlon, the event would quickly become a major draw for the then dominant American athletes.

Souza took the Zofingen title in early 1990 and Big Four member Scott Molina broke the tape in 1991. Coming home soon after Molina in 1991 would be another Ironman world champion, Paula Newby-Fraser, on the first year that the famous 4km Bodenburg climb was added to the bike course. Competitors would be subjected to the Bodenburg not once but three times over the three-lap course, with Souza just one athlete to succumb to the challenge… although admittedly in a snowstorm while wearing his trademark briefs and a tank top. 

The early 90s would be Zofingen’s golden age, with two-time Ironman world champion Erin Baker winning in 1992 and 1994, and Mark Allen finishing fourth in 1992 and taking the title (and a $40,000 winner’s cheque) a year later. A period of Swiss dominance would follow, with Olivier Bernhard, Urs Dellsperger and Stefan Riesen hogging the top of the men’s podium up to 2005. Confirming Switzerland’s duathlon dominance would be Badmann’s three full titles in the women’s race. By Badmann’s final victory in May 2000, however, the gaze of the multisport world was firmly focused on a September event in front of the Sydney Opera House.

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Duathlon’s past and present – feature (cont)

We continue our look at the state of duathlon in the UK…

Olympic impact

“It wasn’t viewed as a negative development for Powerman Zofingen initially, but more and more endurance athletes would start focusing on the more lucrative sport of triathlon, which resulted in a continuous loss of participants,” says the Powerman Zofingen media officer Raphael Galliker on triathlon’s acceptance into the Olympic Games programme. As elite athletes started to chase their Olympic dreams, and with the continued draw of Ironman Hawaii, duathlon suffered. Our own magazine’s name change from just 220 to 220 Triathlon in early 2001 highlighted the shift in multisport’s priorities, with the high-profile Dannon Duathlon Series in America bowing out in 2004.

Dermott Hayes, a head coach at RG Active who’s been in multisport for 14 years, believes triathlon’s rise has heralded duathlon’s decline. “Duathlon hit a brick wall and unfortunately that brick wall was triathlon. We should never be negative about triathlon, but it really kicked duathlon into touch. Triathlon had the sex appeal and duathlon became its little brother. It became seen as something to do for training before the triathlon season starts.”

Powerman Zofingen wasn’t immune to organisational issues, with the race coming close to folding due to staff shortages and financial problems in 2003, a far cry from the days of offering a Hawaii-eclipsing $200,000 prize pot. Swiss banker Stefan Ruf arrived in time to resuscitate the event in 2003 and put a new board together, with an epic encounter between Stefan Riesen and Belgium’s rising duathlon superstar Benny Vansteelant ensuring the classic races kept on coming.

Athlete racing at Powerman Zofingen

Alongside six-time Zofingen winner, Hungary’s Erika Csomor, Benny Vansteelant was the unrivalled superstar of early 21st-century duathlon. Born in 1976 in Torhout, the athlete had already notched up four standard-distance ITU world championships and three of his four ITU long-distance duathlon wins by the time of his first Zofingen title in 2005. A year later, courtesy of another formidable bike leg, Vansteelant recorded his second Zofingen win. Few could have predicted it would be his last. 

Ten days after dropping out of the 2007 Zofingen event with stomach issues on the run, Benny Vansteelant was hit by a car during a training ride in Belgium. He suffered a broken leg, a torn spleen and damage to his lungs and heart, and would die of a pulmonary embolism days later. Duathlon had lost its leading light.

Shoots of recovery

The downward trajectory of duathlon would continue, with the ITU Long Course Duathlon World Championships being cancelled in 2009 due to the lack of an organiser. Yet there were glimmers of recovery for the sport as the decade ended. At Zofingen’s 20th birthday in September 2009, Benny’s younger brother Joerie won the event on his first attempt, producing a 6:11hr course record to secure an emotional victory for all involved in the sport. The event would see over 1,000 entrants, the largest field since the start of the decade.

The next year, Edinburgh hosted a successful ITU world duathlon championship event, with Scottish athlete Cat Morrison taking the women’s title. A partnership between the International Triathlon Union (ITU) and Powerman would follow, with Zofingen hosting the ITU Long Course Worlds up to 2015.

Although a clear show of solidarity between the world’s leading duathlon race organiser – Powerman now has a worldwide series of nearly 20 races – and its federation, the pro numbers in Zofingen remain low (Brit stars

Cat Morrison and Lucy Gossage are just two examples of top duathletes emigrating to tri), with Britain’s former Olympic cyclist Emma Pooley’s emphatic victory in 2014 coming in a field of just 12 female elites.

Nonetheless, the ITU is open to continuing the agreement beyond 2015, but admitted that duathlon sits behind the mixed relay and long-course triathlon in any Olympic-inclusion push. An ITU spokesperson also said that there are currently no plans for the sport to have its own independent federation and it will continue to be governed by the ITU.

Domestic issues

Domestically, the duathlon scene is also full of dark clouds and silver linings. At the time of press, the future of Powerman UK was undecided, with the Spring Ballbuster also absent for 2015 as the Human Race team streamlines its events calendar. “We decided to go back to the original, which was just one event in winter. Having two events split the audience; the total Ballbuster competitors didn’t increase. 

Athletes start the Winter Ballbuster

By having only one event, it cut costs operationally and also has resulted in a sell-out event,” says a Human Race spokesperson. 

While British Triathlon has no data on duathlon participation, 25% of participants in the Triathlon Industry Association survey had raced a duathlon in 2013, consistent with the previous survey in 2011. One Step Beyond also reports that entrant numbers for their Nottingham Duathlon are up from 2013 and the London Duathlon continues to be the world’s biggest run/bike/run event in terms of participation. An enticing new addition has also been added to the April 2015 calendar. 

“With Storm the Castle, we’re aiming to bring things back in favour of duathlon and return the sport to the public eye,” says RG Active head coach Dermott Hayes of the new 10km run/ 33km bike/5km run duathlon set in Ludlow, Shropshire. “We’ve chosen a challenging terrain in an area that hasn’t really been tapped into by multisport, with a finish line actually inside Ludlow Castle. With the course that we’ve got, what we’re hoping for is the duathlon equivalent of the Slateman. On the face of it, tri is a harder event, as people struggle with the swim, but I think any experienced athlete will tell you that duathlon is the harder event.”

As 220 was still walking like John Wayne a week after the Ballbuster, we can concur with Hayes that duathlon is easily as physically demanding as anything the triathlon legs in the slate mines of Snowdonia or the mountains of the Côte d’Azur have thrown at us. But what’s clear is that plenty of further progress needs to be made to the sport if it can ever return to the heady heights of the 90s. The sport remains at a crossroads and will need more grassroots funding, pro purses and coverage from the media to (re)grow.

“As in all sport, elite athletes are looking to pay the mortgage and require races with decent prize money,” says Cat Morrison. “Encouraging event organisers to run duathlon events in tandem with triathlons is an option – just look at Alpe d’Huez.” It’s certainly a tall order… although a pair of brothers from Holmfirth ditching three-discipline racing for two would be a good start.

Click here to read our top duathlon tips…

Key duathlon tips

Head coach at RG Active, Dermott Hayes, provides his essential advice for conquering duathlons.

Build a strong run base

The success of a duathlon depends greatly on the ability to hold good run form and pace when tired. Getting key base miles in will lay down the foundation to be able to hold off fatigue in a race.

Work on increasing the miles before adding speed work. Consider the length of the runs in your event and aim to build to a point where you can execute a run session that combines the two run legs of the race.

Learn to love hills

Most UK duathlons include elements of climbing. Learning and being able to cycle and run hills effectively will enable you to race more strongly.

Include hills in your longer steady cycle and run workouts and, when the time is right, include interval sessions that focus on hill reps. Good climbs can transfer that strength into speed on flatter courses.

Female duathlete on the run

Get strong 

Including a strength-training plan into your weekly workout routine is a must. Endurance athletes are bad at missing strength training, which can lead to a loss of technique and form when the body becomes tired. Strength training will also help to prevent injuries. 

Manage your race pace

The key mistake seen in duathlon is incorrectly pacing the first run, leading to a tiring and poor cycle leg and finishing with a disappointing second run.

Consider aiming to run the first leg at a pace that is just below your PB for the distance, allowing you to conserve energy for the final run and pass those who have got it wrong. You must experiment with this in training.

Male duathlete in run training

Do your bricks

Include a brick session (bike/run or vice versa) each week in the three months leading up to race day. Try different length brick sessions and include at least one full race-distance brick session 2–3wks before race day.

Get kitted out

The duathlon season is through the autumn, winter and spring, so make sure you have the correct kit for the type of terrain you’ll train and race on.

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Are you prepping for a duathlon this winter/spring? Let us know in the comments!